Hue – Vietnam

Pronounced Whey, this city in Vietnam felt very European. A woman we had met in Ha Noi said that she didn’t get a good vibe from Hue, but I felt very comfortable, here. The streets are wide and clean and the housing was generally better. There are fewer people wearing traditional dress and many Vietnamese laughed at my bamboo conical hat, but it is very effective.

view from our balcony

Not being seasoned travellers, we found the 3 star Festival hotel quite intimidating and more like 5 star. Don’t get me wrong – our room was enormous, the laundry service was amazing and the pool provided welcome relief from the humidity.

The front desk suggested we use one of the many local companies to book tours and pointed us in the direction of the ‘tour area’ with excellent detail. We chose a company that resulted in a good one.

They advised a private car and stopping at 4 places. It cost $27 for the day. He took us to the Citadel and said he’d meet us in 2 hours. We questioned that, but he said in his little English that we would need it. We did. In fact, we didn’t really see all of it.

four of the nine cannons

Then we went to Thien Mu pagoda, Thế Miếu temple, The Tomb of Khải Định and another that I can’t recall. They were picturesque or intimidating and just massive. Lots of stairs that are usually vertical.

We were taken to lunch at a place near the temple and it was fantastic – tucked into a hill and great seafood. It appeared to be owned by friends of the driver so that’s good. We tipped well.

The driver also stopped at the incense village and James and I made incense and then we bought some. Lemon grass, cinnamon and sandalwood.

We were taken to an extra place by the driver and we appreciated his enthusiasm and help. We didn’t have the right amount of money to enter so he spoke to his relatives, there is some scuffling about and the next thing, a woman who looked ninety years old turned up on a scooter, offering to take my husband to an ATM. In the end, the driver took out cash and lent us the money, which we repaid on the way back to the hotel.

It was good to return to the hotel and the pool and have a pre-dinner drink.

We decided to have a walk to the church that is visible from the hotel and then dinner, so booked at the hotel, but found so many suitable places along the way, that would have been pretty and interesting, at which to eat. We couldn’t find the church in the dark, even with a map, and argued about where we were and in what direction we should go. There was a canal or river that appeared unexpectedly and threw our direction. Luckily we made it back safely.

We all loved Hue and I would strongly recommend it to Westerners.

Hanoi, Vietnam

The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi (sometimes written as Ha Noi) is the second largest city in the country and has an ‘old quarter’ and a new.

Adelaide – Melbourne – Ho Chi Minh City – Ha Noi. Plenty of food, movies, music and a new e-book. The long 8 hrs didn’t seem as hard as the last 2hrs. At the Saigon airport I caught sight of a Vietnamese hat and knew I had to have one.

The Anise Hotel had clearly been shot in wide screen when we viewed it online, as it was so narrow in real life that you would miss it if you looked down the street from the top. There was a lovely park across the street where people did Tai Chi in the morning and at night.

Attendants were friendly and helpful and the room was snug and sufficient with clean linen and towels. The view from the narrow windows was most surprising in the morning – so many narrow, multi-story houses crammed into the area, with vegetables growing on lattice work from balconies. Mouldy walls and decaying roofs seemed oddly matched to the warm red glow of people inside. Hanging cages of birds cause me to wonder if their song or their taste is what constitutes their allure.

We headed to breakfast early, as we had booked a tour. The brekky was most sufficient – cereal, toast and a lazy susan, in front of which rested a rice-spotted spoon. I spied a couple of campfire-sized frying pans on makeshift burners and was transported back to my science lab days, before eyeing the basket of eggs. A gesture of my hand, more polite than pointing and less pompous than a blessing, brings a helpmate to enquire if I would like an omelette or fried egg? We settle on sunny side up and I toast the bread while a cook is summoned to fry my eggs for me.

Every home should have one.

Fresh watermelon juice and strong coffee, tinted with something vaguely vanilla, sets me up for the day.

The tour departs from the foyer and takes in temples, lakes, museums, mausoleum, the centre of ethnicity, the temple of literature and an on-the-spot art gallery where they work with resins.

The first temple, on the lake, was built around 1049 and was dedicated to the monks who were there. Tortoises are sold out the front so that you can buy one and set it free in the lake with your prayer for long life. Viets say the tortoise signifies long life and they report 2 that lived in the lake for about 700 years!

Chimes hung in the trees and the guide said that Vietnamese use drums and bells (chimes) to get Buddha’s attention so that he can hear their prayer. The practice of praying to Buddha – writing your intention on a piece of paper, going in to the shrine to pray and then burning the paper in the special incinerator that sends the message in the smoke to Buddha, felt simple and sure. Thinking of a very sick relative back home, I skipped steps 1 and 3, promptly took off my sandals and went in. Was it the magic of the moment? I felt the presence of something as I said a quick blend of prayers and was promptly rewarded with a message on my phone. I thought that was very fast – even for a deity responsible for millions of followers, but when I looked at the text – ‘where are you?’ I knew it was from Alan.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Even as I typed ‘in the temple’ and pressed ‘send’, I suddenly realised that he had not followed when the guide directed and was probably in the last place.

I flew out of the temple, loosely slipped my sandals on and did a very good impersonation of a Vietnamese jog as I scuffled quickly down the ornate lane to the last destination.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Husband and son retrieved, I led them to the place where I learned of Buddha’s 8 messages for life, waved my hand at the chimes and view and as they entered the area, faces washed with relied, the guide drew us out and back to the bus.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

It wasn’t the last time we lost Alan and James.

I learned a lot about Buddha and his seven lessons, about the three gates at the entrance to a Vietnamese temple – the past, the present and the future. We always enter by the future because we live for the future and in the hope that we will live good lives now so that we get another life as a human. The present door is used by important dignitaries, so is usually closed unless they are expecting someone important. I learned about Confucius and Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh lived very simply and never married.

Ho Chi Minh museum
Mausoleum
Presidential Palace – Ho Chi Minh refused to live in such splendour
Ho Chi Minh’s first residence
His second residence, across the lake, known for its simplicity
Temple of Literature

I also learned about the 54 different cultural groups in Vietnam and the Mong people in Sa Pa, far to the north west. They are the most marginalised people in Vietnam. There are the red mong, black mong, white mong, flower mong and others. They are identified by different coloured clothing or decorations they have on their rooves to signify this.

Museum of Ethnology
Temple of fertility

We saw the water puppets in the evening and they were great. Apparently they were started by farmers in the slow season when they wait for the rain before planting. The town gathers to watch people’s displays and they compete for the best one. Had dinner at a restaurant that had a menu we could understand and walked home, avoiding beggars and peddlers except the one from whom I bought my classic hat.

water puppets (Alan’s photo)

The next day we walked around the Lake, the city and visited the museum of revolution. I’d give the second a miss, but my husband found it very interesting.

St Joseph’s Cathedral
Huc Bridge

That evening, we had dinner at the Anise, as it felt comfortable and safe, then caught the train to Sa Pa.

I would advocate getting guides, at least some of the time, for the added information they provide, as well as the ease it provides in transport and organisation. They usually arrange lunch and/or dinner for you at an establishment they know.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it was the most charming of the places we visited in Vietnam. Beautiful, historic, colourful, if you only visit one place in Vietnam, make it here.

WP_20160426_030
Japanese Bridge (Chua Cau)

This city was once a major port from the 15th to the 19th century.  The famous Chua Cau Bridge was built by the Japanese in the late 1500s to join the Japanese section to the Chinese traders. It is in what is known as the Old Quarter and the various architecture and industry of old is well-preserved. The bridge is very popular and worth the fee to travel to the Old Quarter.

Boats line the central port, ready to take you on various short or long journeys and fishing nets sit, suspended over the river until used.

WP_20160426_038WP_20160426_11_13_30_ProWP_20160426_029

The city is known for its lanterns and its tailors. In both, you will be spoilt for choice.

WP_20160426_053

And, while it is very pretty by day, it is enchanting by night. My camera at the time was determined to thwart my attempts, but I think you’ll get the picture.

WP_20160426_035WP_20160426_044

We stayed in a hotel with a Spanish flavor, although I think they would say French. Five generations of the family had built 5 separate sections, or blocks and there was a bakery well-beneath us. It was a bit of a warren, but very attractive, nonetheless, and at 3 stars I’d be way out of my comfort in 5 stars.

 

There are markets a-plenty and more places to eat than you could possibly visit if you stayed a year. We spent one day visiting My Son.

We were picked up by private car and taken to My Son (miha sonne) via countryside abloom with lotuses. A shuttle took us 2 km up the hill in 38C so we didn’t complain. The ruins are beautiful – great colour and structure of what is left after the bombing of 1968. The blackened walls are a sombre reminder that more than lives were destroyed. The Cham people were from 11C and these were their temples and meeting places – what we had learned were the first buildings erected as they were central to a village.

WP_20160427_004WP_20160427_09_53_42_ProWP_20160427_028WP_20160427_033

The walk was great – picturesque and informative. The vegetation was dense and many gum trees were there. The driver said that they were very very old and that the people made eucalyptus oil ‘for the muscle and the baby’.

On our return, I noticed some extensive waterlily areas and the driver kindly stopped while I sloshed off in the mud to capture them.

WP_20160427_038WP_20160427_040

In the afternoon, we held off lunch until the shuttle took is to the beach, where we found soul café, recommended by a previous guide (Thanh). Had a cheap lunch of spring rolls and cau lau. Then we headed for the beach and avoided paying for a simple mat or a more luxurious lounge, choosing the sand instead. I was the only one who headed for the water and it was warm and salty. There were 2 lifeguards and red flags set up between which to swim. Few people were in the water, as most lounged under the grass huts or on the lazy boys. It wasn’t sunny, but still hot.

We saw some fishermen take their round boats out, using just a rudder but getting very far. There were junks on the water, too, but we didn’t see anyone on them. This beach is not the main beach. On arrival in Hoi An, the driver took us to an esplanade which I believe is the main swimming area.

However, I loved the character of the beach we ended at. In fact, the whole character of Hoi An was delightful. We felt safe walking the streets by day or night and knew to tip drivers, restaurateurs and the like. This was the tail end of our trip and a great way to end it.

Travel safe. Buy your water in Vietnam, but have plenty of it and take a hat (although the conical rice hats are the best sunshades I have ever worn).

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Nearly two years have passed and yet I cannot forget the trip to Sa Pa, in Vietnam’s remote northwest. We took the train, and there the adventure began.

WP_20160420_021

The train to Cao Lai on the Chinese border was very long and, as our first sleeper, the bunks and bedside snacks were snug and welcoming. As the train departed, though, I cannot begin to explain the various directions I was pulled in and rolled to and how many bodily functions I wanted to perform at once. Sometimes I stood outside our cabin, swaying in the coolness of the breeze that swept down the corridors through the open doors, monitored by one of the carriage guards. Motion sickness tablets work and I managed a satisfactory sleep, over the night. Someone knocked on our door at 5.15am and I awoke to the lush green vegetation of the hills whizzing past the window. It was lovely.

We were collected by a pre-booked local driver and guide and took the steep, winding road to Sa Pa. Apparently, you can take a bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa, but it is narrow and winding, so I’m not sure the journey would have been any better. My husband says the train trip was the highlight of our entire Vietnam holiday, so each to their own. The guide took us to a little shop for some breakfast and then we began our walk through the main streets, heading for Catcat.

A__1E7E

WP_20160421_001WP_20160421_004 Heading out of the town, you quickly come to the terraces for which the area is known, and although it was the warm season, a thick fog cloaked the hills in magic.

WP_20160421_014WP_20160421_007WP_20160421_012

Steep terraced hills are sewn with rice and hemp and water buffalo roam freely when not tied to a plough. Our guide, Cuong, was local to the area and he explained the rice growing seasons, dyeing hemp and the importance of marriage and children. He was clearly on the lookout for a wife and at one time displayed his skill with a flute.

WP_20160421_018

Cuong took us through the market stalls of his people, explaining that they rely on tourism to survive. Inexperienced travellers, we only learnt much later that it is customary to tip and one of the great regrets I have is that we did not do so in Sa Pa. We were taken to the house of a friend of our guide and shown the hemp drying. The young woman, 20 years old and with 2 children, had a photo with my son, who was 23, outside the house where she dyes with indigo and weaves the hemp, as her mother and grandmother did before her.

WP_20160421_024

We reached the beautiful falls and were told that the windmills are replaced often, as they do not last long.

WP_20160421_036WP_20160421_045WP_20160421_047WP_20160421_049

At the top of the falls we were entertained by a traditional story, with music and dancing. The varieties of dress and props was extraordinary and the venue perfect.

WP_20160421_052WP_20160421_056

Cuong took us to two schools, as we are teachers, and at the school where he went we spoke to the teachers. I was surprised that, instead of a bell, they have a large drum that can be heard around the mountains. No drum monitors, though; only the Principal can call the children to the classroom.

WP_20160421_070WP_20160421_072WP_20160421_074

The paths were good and as we went higher once more, the mist swept in. We passed ancient stones whose purpose even the guide did not know, but he did know a good place for lunch, in Lao Chai, overlooking a deep river, dry at the time.

WP_20160421_060WP_20160421_062WP_20160421_069

WP_20160421_065

Back past terraced mountainsides, we went to Sa Pa and walked its steep streets.

WP_20160421_084

WP_20160421_086WP_20160421_089WP_20160421_093

Then sat in a square, opposite the church, as the fog set in and we waited for our ride back to Lao Cai.

WP_20160421_091WP_20160421_092

Where we sat and remembered the band of peddlers who seemed to follow us around the countryside. The Hmong people, of whom there are black Hmong, white Hmong, red Hmong and many more, are among the most marginalised people in Vietnam. They had the best English as their livelihoods depended upon it and we became quite fond of them, really.

A__9445

Sa Pa, full of beauty and struggle. You can do home stays (we met a couple of Frenchmen who said it was amazing), hire motorbikes (we’re told that’s quite dangerous if you don’t know the roads) or book treks over the mountains. We  went cautiously, as is our way.

Safe Travels. Tip generously. Buy bottled water.

11 days in Vietnam; a short summary

We have only travelled outside of Australia once, and that was in response to our critics, who challenged us to look beyond our beautiful shores and have a different experience. So we booked to go to Vietnam in our fortnight of school holidays.

download

Our excellent travel consultant, Joan Newbery, from Phil Hoffmann Travel, advised us that if we planned to attempt the whole country in 11 days, we would go far and see little. She advised us to do the north, the south or a region. Researching weather and places of interest, we decided to do the north. Ha Noi, Sa Pa, Halong Bay, Hue and Hoi An.

Day 1 – 10 hours of flying to Ha Noi, then familiarisation

Day 2 – Tour that included temples, lakes, museums, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Centre of Ethnicity, the Temple of Literature and an on-the-spot art gallery.  Water puppets in the evening.

Day 3 – Hoan Kiem Lake, Museum of Revolution, St Joseph’s Cathedral, walking Ha Noi, overnight train to Cao Lai .

Day 4 – Drive to Sa Pa (most marginalised region of Vietnam), guide through the town and villages, then back to Cao Lai and overnight train to Ha Noi.

Day 5 and 6 – chauffeured to Ha Long Bay, via Dai Vien factory (worked by victims of Agent Orange), for 2-day cruise.

WP_20160423_003

Day 7 – chauffeured to domestic airport in Ha Noi, via Dai Vien again and a massive Catholic Church. Flight to Hue.

WP_20160423_006

Day 8 – Hue. We walked to the tourist operator area and booked a driver for 4 places, at $27. We went to the Citadel, Thien Mu pagoda, Thế Miếu temple, The Tomb of Khải Định and another that I can’t recall. We were taken to lunch at a place near the temple and the driver also stopped at the incense village where we made incense and then we bought some. We were also taken to Khai Dinh Tomb. Much more than the agreed destinations so we tipped him well.

Day 9 – Drive to Hoi An with a guide, via a roadside stop at the birthplace of the last queen, also known for eucalyptus oil manufacture, then Hai Van Pass, fish farm, Red Beach for lunch, arriving at Hoi An. The Central Markets were an interesting haggling experience and then food choices were plentiful.

Day 10 – Old town, tailors and lanterns.

Day 11 – Private car to My Son. 11th Century buildings. Took a shuttle to the beach in the afternoon – pretty chilled.

Day 12 – A morning at the pool, then flights from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City, then to Melbourne and then home.

A lot of distance, a very different experience from Australia, so much colour, so many people.

I’ve tried to keep this blog short, so if you have any questions or want more detail, please let me know, as I am happy to add anything if I can.

Make sure you tip. Wear a hat, do tours and shop in the remote areas.

Would we go overseas again? Vietnam is unforgettable.

One word challenge – multicoloured

Cee Neuner mentioned the one word challenge and I immediately thought of  the incense sticks in Thuy Xuan Village in Hue, Vietnam.

WP_20160424_059

This town once handmade all the incense for Vietnam. My son and I had a go at making some – looks a lot easier than it is.

Vietnam is the only country I have been to, outside of Australia. There is so much colour there, but this is the memory that rose foremost.